The Dark Intentions of Midtown’s Cryptid
The Pacific Northwest has Sasquatch, Scotland has Nessie, and Midtown Memphis, for a few weeks in February 1927, had Swift Peter. Like its cryptid counterparts in other cultures, Swift Peter’s existence has been claimed without ever being proven. Cryptids exist in the space between oral history and myth, and their stories tell us as much about the people and circumstances surrounding their creation and usage as they do about the beasts themselves.
The Scare of 1927
According to varied newspaper accounts, a brindle-colored beast of unclear dimensions began killing dogs in Midtown Memphis in early February 1927. By some reckonings, it was six feet long and two feet high with short front legs and a long tail. Other residents thought it was higher in the front than the back and had a bushy mane. Still others believed it to have a small head and wide forequarters. The only thing everyone agreed on was its coloring.
The “What-Is-It” initially alarmed Central Avenue and Cooper Street residents as they found dogs and cats with slit throats. More dogs began to be reported missing. According to the Commercial Appeal, zoo superintendent Ernest Godwin first began calling the marauder a “Swift Peter,” which he claimed was a member of the rodent family that lives underground in places under riverbanks hollowed by rains.
The beast eventually added a calf, belonging to a Black family living on York Avenue, to the pile on a lot near Cooper and Central where it stored its kills. The police chief officially sanctioned vigilante hunts for the animal, and crowds showed up in Cooper Young to join the search. The police quickly reversed course and disallowed the would-be-gamesmen to carry guns out of fear of accidental shootings. Hunters proposed using packs of dogs to track the beast and staking out a bait dog as a trap.
Of course, it didn’t take advertisers long to capitalize on the viral meme. Clarence Saunders (self-service grocery store innovator and creator of Piggly Wiggly) invoked Swift Peter in his verbose advertisements, comparing the blood sucking beast to the “High Price Artist,” whose beastly throat he would enjoy cutting with cheaper and cheaper prices at his Sole Owner Stores. Realtors listed Midtown bungalows for sale as “Swift Peter bargains.” L. Banes urged readers not to be afraid to sell their gold and silver at his South Main store because “Swift Peter isn’t here.” The cryptid also was used to name a restaurant (Swift Peter Cafeteria on Beale Street) and a show dog (Miss Swift Peter).
It later came out that A.B. Weeks, a pharmacist, started the Swift Peter rumor to scare his Black delivery boys away from “loafing” on a street corner. Thirty years after the fiasco, Weeks, then working in Whiteville, Tennessee, claimed credit on the record in a letter to the Commercial Appeal. Weeks asserted reporter Al Wilson was in on the hoax and that he asked Wilson to “kill it by an expose” once the amateur hunters took to the streets.
That expose came on February 12, 1927, with the writer claiming “nobody hereabouts ever heard of a swift peter until the cat and dog population of Memphis attracted the attention of this nonresident… .” But while this reporter may not have been familiar with Swift Peter before this incident, some of the city’s Black citizens were.
Which raises the question, who was in on the joke? And who were the ones hurt by it?
Swift Peter’s origins lie in the Mississippi Delta. In 1928, Ole Miss English professor Arthur Palmer Hudson included Swift Peter in his Specimens of Mississippi Folklore Collected with the Assistance of Students and Citizens of Mississippi. Author T.D. Clark wrote, “The earliest form of the legend of Swift Peter is those tales of a stray bear or panther which used to sweep over rural communities, and which still occasionally spring up here and there…Possibly Swift Peter is an evolution from these stories. The most succinct description of him is that of a ‘bit white something that tears up cats and dogs and children.'” His actions were always consistent; the dogs started barking and an owner ran outside to find the beast slashing with its fangs and sucking their dogs’ blood. Clark also recorded an incident of a mail carrier making fake tracks to scare Black farmers in an isolated community.
“They go around through the country and kill dogs…it’s like there’s a bunch of dogs here…before I even get out the door he killed mine and is up on yours. That’s why they call him Swift Peter because nobody could ever catch him.
“Did you ever know of any cases of Swift Peters actually operating in the country?”
“No, not really. It’s something I heard about.”
By 1927, one decade into the Great Migration of over 6 million Black Americans from the rural South to the industrial North, many Black Mississippians had relocated to Memphis either permanently or as a temporary stopover. In Clark’s recounting, he notes that during the Swift Peter incident in Memphis, Black Memphians were especially affected by the rumor, including the staff at Southwestern (now Rhodes) College.
In his short story, “Swift Peter: The Beast of Cooper Young,” Memphis author Corey Mesler focuses on the racial overtones of the Swift Peter incident. In his fictional retelling, the pharmacist starts the rumor to discourage Black residents from moving into the neighborhood. This motive backfires when the myth becomes reality and kills its creator, but not before terrorizing its intended targets.
Rumor mongering and claimed hoaxes aside, Swift Peter did exist in Upper Mississippi Delta folklore and its sudden reappearance in Midtown in 1927 did coincide with an increase in migration out of rural communities and into urban centers. This influx unsettled the status quo. So, what some people took as a joke and a way to sell groceries and houses was also a tactic designed to scare people. While less overt than redlining and racial covenants, Swift Peter was also an agent of Jim Crow.
And as for the brindle-colored beast of Midtown? Apart from featuring in a recent podcast episode, Swift Peter has remained firmly mired in the past.
Although, from time to time, Midtown residents do mention brief views of animals with inexplicable speed and dexterity leaping up trees and over fences. The space between legend and truth may be smaller than we imagine.
Caroline Mitchell Carrico is a native Memphian and, as a historian by training, she enjoys researching the city’s past and pulling it into the present. When she isn’t reading and writing, she can often be found cheering on her kids’ soccer teams.